Computerworld Career Adviser

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Career Adviser

By Fran Quittel

A biweekly interactive, advice column in which selected questions will be answered by nationally known columnist and recruitment expert Frances Quitell.

January 3, 2000

Dear Career Adviser:
I currently work as a PC/LAN specialist at my company and have been asked to become our webmaster. I am trying to figure out where to start. I have some basic programming skills (Visual Basic 6.0) and have worked with a few graphics applications.

What path should I follow to become a webmaster, and where should I go for training?

— Webmaster in the Making

Dear Webmaster:
Part of the answer depends on whether you're being asked to do fairly rudimentary tasks involving just basic knowledge of HTML, updating site content and fixing broken links vs. a more complex job requiring demonstrated abilities with SQL, Perl, Java and C++ within a Web context.
&"Start with the basics, including HTML and optimizing graphics for the Web, and don't forget to build your own site,&" suggests Bill Stephens, a Web systems analyst at Miller Freeman Inc. in San Francisco. Then continue learning based on your current environment.
If your company is a Windows NT shop, Stephens recommends adding Microsoft Active Server Pages to a webmaster's database skills; for Unix environments, he recommends Perl or Personal Home Page and, for front-end work, JavaScript or Flash. But don't stop there — top webmaster careers involve senior development skills based on Common Gateway Interface (CGI), Extensible Markup Language, streaming media and information architecture, not to mention image and site optimization, plus extensive knowledge of hardware and server configurations.

&"Dear Career Adviser:
I have a bachelor of arts degree and a master's in computer science, with five years of information technology experience — four in Novell network administration and Web development (HTML and CGI) and one year in object-oriented programming in Java. I am also completing my MBA. Should I seek a more technical job as an application architect, foregoing the use of my MBA for now, or start a new career in project management?

— Decisions, Decisions

Dear D-Squared:
Both paths are valid, with the only hang-up perhaps later on if you choose project management and want to return to more technical roles. But project management jobs are up-and-coming, and your MBA and application development experience are great qualifications.
Project managers typically develop and track a detailed list of component tasks, costs and the schedules required to develop, test and deliver a product or service on time. They need real-world knowledge of what it really takes to deliver complex implementations and must get accurate, realistic updates from co-workers, communicating the bad news about potentially missed deadlines and cost overruns to product stakeholders and sponsors.
&"If you're uncomfortable with the communications piece, this job might not be for you,&" counsels Jean Fuller, an independent project management recruiter in San Carlos, Calif.

&"Dear Career Adviser:
I'm an experienced technical writer in Silicon Valley with a major hardware manufacturer. It's year's end, and I want to see if I can become a contractor with my current employer, as I see people here on a contract basis who are making a lot more money than I am. How should I approach my current employer with this idea?

— Independent Ira

Dear Independent:
A wise employer would nix this change in status unless you're starting your own company to offer the services you currently offer personally. Here's why: If your employer, desk, supervisor, employer-provided equipment, e-mail address within the company and your place on the organizational chart all remain the same, you're still an employee to the IRS.
This opens your employer to potential penalties — including back wages, tax payments, benefits and other fines — if your status is examined, a scrutiny which could befall you if you're part of the company's 401(k) and pension plans.
If you really want to become a contract employee, go elsewhere to start your business, advises attorney Jeffrey S. Sloan at Landels, Ripley & Diamond LLP in San Francisco. Your status as an independent consultant is stronger if you're not with the same employer.
Also develop a consulting contract, advertisements for your business, separate business cards with your own business name on them and even a Hotmail account so you can access your e-mail without being on a company's internal e-mail roster.
Make sure you're setting your own hours and your business has the opportunity for profits and losses. Because the IRS is always looking to collect taxes due, you're in a stronger position if you set up your own corporation.

Quittel is an expert in high tech careers and recruitment. She is the creator of The FirePower Career Forum on The Microsoft Network (MSN) and of the websites and which offer her tips and advice for job seekers and employers repectively.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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